On the way from the international airport into town one cannot miss the people sleeping on the pavement, sheltered under bridges with nothing more than an old blanket to cover themselves. Like many metropolitan cities across the globe, Rio de Janeiro has a substantial homeless population. Poverty exists all over Brazil, from the many favelas to the down town city centres. Yet city officials go out of their way to hide the issues.
Sources: INSP, 27 September 2010 and Novy Prostor magazine (Czech Republic), October 2010
Hosting a tournament like the Homeless World Cup (HWC) is a great opportunity for a city and country to show the world its commitment to tackling poverty and homelessness. The city of Rio instead chose the road of ignorance. They objected against the word ‘homeless’ and decided to refer to the tournament as the ‘Social World Cup’. With ‘beating homelessness through football’ being the main objective of the Homeless World Cup, skipping the term ‘homeless’ seems rather bizarre. The mainstream media barely covers the issue of homelessness and many seem to be comfortable with the ‘if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist’ approach.
It can therefore be seen as a great victory that the HWC organising committee managed to secure the world famous Copacabana Beach as the venue for this year’s event. All week long, big Homeless World Cup flags and banners marked the scene. Over 400 homeless or vulnerably housed players showed off their skills on the pitches, doing themselves and their countries proud. At least to local beach-goers and passers-by the message could not be clearer: homeless people can change their lives, if they are given a chance. And homelessness is an issue that can be resolved, if decision makers make it their priority.
“We have to address the issues in order to do something about them”
The problem in Brazil is a lack of acknowledgement of the problems, says HWC co-founder and president Mel Young. “Brazil is in denial. They have two massive events coming up [the FIFA World Cup Football in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016] and their solution to serious social issues is to pretend they don’t exist.”
With the gap between rich and poor still getting bigger every year, problems need to be tackled on a global scale, says Young. “Countries like Brazil think they are the only country in poverty, but homelessness and poverty exist all over the world. The statistics are there as proof. The USA for example have 3.5 million people living on the streets. What we need to do is get together. It is no solution to say: poverty only exists in Africa. We have to address the issues in order to do something about them.”
With eight years’ experience behind him, Young admits this year’s tournament has been ‘the most difficult’ to organise. The organisation’s philosophy of fighting homelessness through sport was not fully understood by the Brazilian authorities. “Not enough is happening in Brazil to tackle these issues”, he says. He compares the situation with the treatment of an illness. “If you feel sick, if you feel a lump somewhere in your body and you don’t take action, it will grow. You won’t get better unless you go to the doctor.”
Despite the difficulties, Young says the atmosphere during the tournament was ‘absolutely fabulous’. “More than ever, the spirit between teams was fantastic. Players from different teams supported each other and respected each other. There was great interaction between them. To many, Copacabana beach is the home of football. It has been a fantastic setting for the tournament.”
As part of the tournament’s local legacy, the HWC organisation will donate a football community centre to the city, “to inspire Brazil to tackle poverty and help young people at serious social risk to fight against social stigma and exclusion.” The centre -a partnership between the Homeless World Cup, sponsor Nike and NGO Architecture for Humanity- is currently being built in Santa Cruz, a poor district on the outskirts of Rio.
Talking of the centre, Young says: “We’d love to see the legacy of the Rio 2010 Homeless World Cup ignite Brazil to take real action to address the critical national issue of homelessness. It’s a great example to replicate nationally. Politicians love to talk. Partnerships that take action at the core of a community,with the people that are affected, will create lasting, significant change.”